Business or personal? That is the question facing new trainees at this ever-growing national firm.
Egging IM on
Sheffield doesn't immediately spring to mind when thinking of dangerous cities chock full of accidents, but it's nonetheless the birthplace of Irwin Mitchell – a firm that made its name handling personal injury and clinical negligence cases. Both of these practices slot into the firm's personal legal services (PLS) branch alongside areas like family and Court of Protection law. PLS has traditionally been the firm's strongest suit, as shown by its clutch of top Chambers UK rankings in the areas mentioned above. The firm's overall market position was bolstered in 2015 via a merger with Thomas Eggar, which gave IM six offices across the South and a sizeable private wealth team. “We had a talk about the merger, so we heard it from the horse's mouth,” said well-informed trainees. “They made it clear they were interested in the high net worth individual market and were looking to increase the strength of our private wealth brand.”
IM is no stranger to mergers of course. Since converting to an alternative business structure (ABS) in 2012 –you can read more about alternative business structures here. the firm has tied the knot seven times, with the likes of personal injury shop MPH Solicitors and Mayfair-based private wealth specialists Berkeley Law. But let's return to the latest union, which was deemed a worthy match by trainees: “Having met those from Thomas Eggar, their values are similar and they have the same work ethos. Overall the merger has created a positive atmosphere.”
IM in business
IM isn't just about the personal though: it also boasts a business legal services (BLS) branch, which it has been bulking up over the years. Between 2012 and 2015, IM funnelled over 30 partners into this side of the firm, strengthening areas like corporate, commercial litigation and real estate. The TE merger will help to beef it up even further: the size of the real estate team has doubled, for instance, and IM will no doubt benefit from TE's expertise in the retail, financial services, manufacturing, and technology and media sectors. For now, IM's commercial clout is mostly recognised by Chambers UK in its Yorkshire homeland and across the South (where the legacy TE offices are). Practices that stand out include real estate, mid-market corporate/M&A, employment, IT and banking and finance.
Incoming trainees must decide where their hearts lie, as they pledge allegiance to either PLS or BLS before they start. That means they'll only sit in teams on one side, with no realistic chance of crossing over. “You end up being very focused,” said one source who liked the clear-cut division, while another who wasn't entirely sure what suited them commented: “In an ideal world I suppose I would have liked a bit of experience in more things, but I can't say I've suffered.” Bristol, Newcastle, Southampton and Cambridge only offer the PLS streams at the present time. Meanwhile the legacy Thomas Eggar offices – Chichester, Gatwick, Newbury, London and Southampton – are being treated as one unit for training purposes, offering both the PLS and BLS streams between them. Trainees here can also do a private client seat.
Those who opt for a BLS training contract complete four six-month-long seats. One option is IM's mid-market corporate department, which handles a mix of M&A, capital markets and private equity deals. The combo of the Sheffield and Leeds-based teams means that IM is something of a tour de force in the Yorkshire region, where it picks up a high Chambers UK ranking for its corporate work. Lawyers in Sheffield recently advised hotel owner the Coaching Inn Group on its £4.5 million investment from the Business Growth fund. The London team is more niche in that “it does a lot of real estate-related deals,” like advising real estate investment manager AEW Europe on its formation of a fund with a US-based private equity investor. Interviewees told us that “during a deal trainees prepare and draft all of the ancillary documents like board minutes, by using the precedent and adapting it to suit the specific needs of the transaction.” On top of this newbies “run the due diligence aspects of the deal, which involves co-ordinating the team and compiling all of the documents for completion.”
“Heavily involved in the project management side of deals."
Real estate is “probably the biggest BLS department nationally,” with the London and Sheffield teams long regarded as the strongest. However, Manchester has been challenging their throne over the last few years. The team here recently acted for Jacksons Row Limited – a joint venture involving former Man United stars Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs – during its £100 million development of the city's St Michael's quarter; it will include two skyscrapers, a five-star hotel and a public plaza. Other well known names on IM's real estate roster include National Grid, the University of Sheffield, Thorntons and Vue Entertainment. One London trainee told us they'd been “heavily involved in the project management side of deals. I had to make sure that fee earners in the different offices knew what they had to do before a certain deadline, so I was constantly updating the conditions precedent checklist.” Others reported running small leases, and they'd also drafted applications to the Land Registry.
In commercial litigation, trainees had varied experiences. In Manchester “a lot of the cases were property-related,” while in Birmingham “there was a lot of banking litigation and mortgage repossession work, where you could run your own files quite easily.” In Sheffield, one focused on “commercial contract and professional negligence disputes” while another split their time between “property, contract and insurance matters.” Task-wise, there was a lot more in common. Most sources had drafted initial letters, witness statements and instructions to counsel, and taken on a good amount of research too. On the whole, the “larger matters are more delegated, so you'll assist but learn too. On smaller matters you'll report back but will be left to form your own opinions when preparing advice or letters.”
“PI has to factor into your career plan.”
London and Birmingham have carved out a niche for international personal injury and products liability work. This practice –“everyone just calls it 'travel'” – focuses on claims that take place outside the UK, with lawyers covering group illnesses (like food poisoning), accidents and terrorist attacks. The firm is representing some of the British citizens injured in the 2015 terrorist attack on a beach in Sousse in Tunisia, and in the past has dealt with clients affected by 9/11 and the 2012 'Costa Concordia' disaster. However, trainees told us that less high-profile work is the norm. “It ranges from coach crashes to skiing accidents, and it's really technical because you need to know the interplay between international and English law. You get a little less responsibility because of its complexity, but you still draft letters of claim and witness statements.”
Trust me IM a doctor
The majority of clin neg cases are claimant-focused, often for recipients of misdiagnoses or injuries sustained during operations or birth. Cases often range into the multimillions: the Sheffield team recently secured £2.7 million in compensation for a woman, who, while suffering from swine flu in 2009, was not diagnosed and admitted to hospital soon enough. Trainees told us that “it's quite a lot to take on initially, as you're essentially becoming qualified in medicine as well as law!” Another explained: “It's all about liability, so you'll be poring over medical reports and scrutinising words to make sure there's nothing for the other side to pick up on – it's very analytical.” It can also be “difficult emotionally sometimes, but you are there to help and to affect positive change so we all have a hopeful outlook.”
IM's Court of Protection team manages the financial affairs of people who lack the capacity to do it themselves. “It tends to be those with birth injuries or a delayed diagnosis, as well as those who have lost capacity,” sources informed us. “We do a range of things for them: professional deputyships, managing properties or affairs and overseeing trusts.” Trainees here “went to client meetings, annual reviews and 'investment beauty parades', where people will show us potential ways to invest our clients' money.” There are “more technical jobs,” as well, like “drafting deputyship applications, liaising with the CoP and making sure that those applications are continuing apace.” Client contact is par for the course here: “You get involved a lot with family members and it's quite often a case of taking complicated topics and communicating them in a simplified way. It's all been really rewarding.”
“They put maps everywhere showing where we're based.”
Many trainees weren't expecting such a cosy environment considering the firm's growing size. “I knew it was a big national firm so I thought it wouldn't have that nice personal touch,” one Sheffielder admitted, “but I've realised that behind the scenes there are conscientious and hard-working people who are pleasant to be around – I don't know anyone who isn't a glass-half-full-er.” We also heard that the partners are good at keeping morale high: “There's little sense of a divide between us and the partners – they'll even make a cup of tea for you in the morning!” Not that a dose of caffeine is necessarily required to fire people up here, as “we're very ambitious. The merger with Thomas Eggar has really boosted things and made IM feel like a bigger firm – especially as they put maps everywhere showing where we're based.”
When trainees' seniors weren't playing tea-maid, they brewed up some decent supervision. “My supervisor and I will always go through documents together. We both marked up a draft of an SPA and then compared notes. It's a great way of learning, as you get to see it from their perspective.” Others shared equally glowing accounts of supervision, with one telling us: “I have one big catch-up with my supervisor each week, but we also chat for half an hour every day, and I often send about 20 emails asking questions too. He says he doesn't mind me harassing him!” Such harassment isn't discouraged by the open-plan offices either. "There are some structured training sessions, but I'd say most of my learning comes from one-on-one support and learning on the job.”
IM not crazy
Trainees' hours were greeted with general approval. “It's nothing crazy,” said one; “I might get in at around 8.45am and leave sometime between 6 and 6.30pm.” That was roughly the average across offices – making life easier for older trainees who moonlight as tellers of bedtime stories. “They have a good mix of ages and some trainees have young families. They aren't just looking for people who've come straight out of a redbrick uni,” a source confirmed. “A lot of people have done other things previously, in law or another area.” Despite a few moans in previous years about the blanket salary that's applied to offices outside London (£25,000 in the first year) trainees played it down this year and noted that “there has been discussion about changing that – it's being evaluated.”
The qualification process proved to be more of an issue. “There's not a great deal of communication about what's going on,” a few frustrated sources told us. With no formal process in place, trainees revealed that “you eventually get a good idea of whether they want you over the course of your final seat, but it all comes down to business need.” In 2016 the firm retained 29 out of 44 qualifiers. Some felt that the social life alone was worth staying for, as “there's always stuff going on.” Most jaunts start out with “a simple email saying, 'I'm going for a drink! Who wants to join?'” and from there the revelling begins. Other shindigs to look forward to include the Christmas and summer office parties, as well as team away days, which bring people together from across the offices.
Trainees across IM are encouraged to get involved in the firm's CSR and charity fund-raising activities.
How to het an Irwin Mitchell training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 15 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 30 June 2017
Application and video interview
Irwin Mitchell receives over 2,000 applications each year for its 50 or so training contracts up for grabs. Applications begin with a cover letter and some questions on “your reasons for choosing to apply to Irwin Mitchell, what you believe you could add to the firm, and your motivations for applying for a particular stream,” graduate recruitment officer Alex Burgess tells us. (Read our True Picture on the firm to learn more about these 'streams'.) There are also the usual competency-based questions, plus ones covering work experience and qualifications.
Around 500 applicants make it to a video interview (a link is sent to the candidate, inviting them to complete the interview at a convenient time within a set deadline). The interviews last 15 to 20 minutes and in Burgess' words, aim to discover a candidate's “determination to succeed, flexibility, adaptability, commercial awareness and client focus.” There are usually some IM-specific questions too, so be sure to brush up on your knowledge of the firm's practice areas and geographical coverage.
Roughly 200 people go through to the assessment centre, which involves a group exercise, an instruction-taking and written task, and an interview, plus a Q&A with trainee.
The group exercise varies each year, but IM always looks closely at “how candidates interact with each other and combine forces to achieve the desired goal.” For the instruction-taking task, candidates listen to a phone message from a potential client and prepare a brief in order to discuss the potential case with the assessors. This tests their ability to extract relevant information, prepare a summary and analyse it effectively.
Then there's the interview, which is carried out by a partner and an associate, or a member of the graduate recruitment team from the office the candidate is applying to. This involves a mix of questions covering the candidate's CV, their motivations, their knowledge of the firm and competencies like client focus and discipline.
IM recruits around 65% of its trainees through its two two-week vac schemes (aka 'legal work placements'). These take place in June and July and are offered in each of the firm's English offices.
There's no set number of places, but Burgess tells us around 80 students overall participated in 2014, 72 took part in 2015, and 60 in 2016. Vac schemers usually sample two different departments during their visit. According to our sources, the firm “tries to let candidates experience at least one area of interest.” Candidates are asked to provide their preferences before the start of the scheme.
At the end of the two weeks is an interview that covers questions about the candidate's “motivations and career aspirations, their reasons for wanting to work at Irwin Mitchell, and their awareness of what's happening in the legal world.”
How to wow
“As a firm, we take academics into consideration, and are looking for high achievers,” says Burgess. “However, academics are just one area, and we look for candidates who can display skills in a number of areas. As the team read every application, we want to give applicants the opportunity to sell those skills, whatever their background.” Previously the firm did not stipulate a minimum degree requirement, however it now says that a 2:1 is “preferred” – we're not surprised at this slight chance as standards are rising across the profession.
IM is looking for “well-rounded individuals with a good amount of work experience behind them.” It's particularly important to demonstrate interpersonal skills too. As Burgess adds: “You'll be dealing with clients on a daily basis, so these skills are assessed throughout the process.”
Alternative Business Structures
Thomas Eggar House,
- Partners 293
- Other fee earners 1,480
- Total trainees 122
- Contact Nicola Stanley, graduate manager, email@example.com
- Method of application Please visit the firm’s website www.irwinmitchell.com/graduates and complete the online application
- Selection procedure Application, video interview and assessment centre
- Closing date for 2019 30 June 2017
- Training contracts pa 50
- Applications pa 2,000+
- % interviewed pa 13.7%
- Required degree grade 2:1 or higher preferred
- Training salary
- First year (outside London): £25,000
- First year (London): £36,000
- Second year (outside London): £27,000
- Second year (London): £38,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification 80%+
- Overseas/regional offices Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Chichester, Gatwick, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newbury, Newcastle, Sheffield, and Southampton.
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